- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 14, 2021

President-elect Joseph R. Biden said Thursday he will demand nearly $2 trillion from Congress to deliver on his plan for reviving the sputtering economy by defeating the deadly coronavirus first, an early test of what the incoming leader will be able to get through Congress after his party officially takes control of the House, Senate and White House.

The plan calls for $1,400 checks to households, unemployment benefits, $25 billion in rental assistance and an extension of a federal eviction moratorium until the end of September.

Mr. Biden wants more than 14 weeks of paid sick and family and medical leave, with a maximum benefit of $1,400 per week for eligible workers, and his proposal would reimburse states and localities for the cost of the leave, as well as employers with fewer than 500 employees.

He is also calling on Congress to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour as part of the plan.

Mr. Biden is seeking $130 billion to reopen schools for in-person learning and plans to take a bigger federal role in the immunization push than President Trump, who shepherded two vaccines to approval but left most of the implementation to the states. The president-elect is eyeing $20 billion for a national program that will set up community vaccine centers and dispatch mobile centers to hard-to-reach areas.

All told, Mr. Biden is signaling he will lean on narrow Democratic control of government to fill gaps left by compromise packages last year, which he characterized as a “down payment.” He said low borrowing rates and the anticipated return on investment compels the government to seize the moment or risk digging a budget hole far deeper than his ask for $1.9 trillion.

“There’s no time to waste. We have to act and we have to act now,” Mr. Biden said in Wilmington, Delaware, less than one week before his inauguration.

Capitol Hill Democrats, teachers’ unions and labor unions hailed the ambitious spending plan — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said it provided “real hope” — but conservatives are balking. They say it makes little sense to break the bank before the latest round of stimulus does its work.

“Expanding and extending unemployment benefits will discourage Americans from going back to work. And spending hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up blue state finances rewards bad fiscal decisions that predate the pandemic,” said Alfredo Ortiz, president and CEO of the Job Creators Network. “The worst part of the Biden administration’s proposal is the provision to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Small businesses, which have been decimated by the pandemic, would have to contend with dramatic increases in their entry-level labor costs — the straw that will break the backs of countless low-margin employers around the country.”

Mr. Biden will lead a nation rattled by postelection rancor and a virus that is spreading faster than ever, with nearly 250,000 newly reported infections per day and a world-leading death toll of over 385,000.

Wild transmission continues in Los Angeles, stretching hospitals thin. Arizona led the nation in cases and deaths per share of its population over the past week.

Over 3,300 people are dying each day from COVID-19, on average, heaping pressure on Mr. Biden to speed up the immunization campaign.

“That is more than died on 9/11 — every day,” Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and Biden adviser, said Thursday on a webcast hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It is unacceptable for Americans to be dying at that rate right now.”

Fast-spreading variants and pandemic skepticism in parts of society are complicating the fight against the virus, which has upended public life, forced children to learn from home and closed businesses, sparking economic woe.

Mr. Biden said his push for $1,400 checks would round out an earlier drive for $2,000 that fell short on Capitol Hill, landing at $600 instead. He’s also pushing for $350 billion in funding for state and local governments — a perpetual sticking point in last year’s COVID-19 relief talks.

Mr. Biden is seeking $30 billion in rental, water, and energy assistance, and an extension of a federal eviction and foreclosure moratorium through September.

He also wants Congress to boost the popular earned income and child tax credits and provide more money for virus testing and personal-protective equipment in the workplace and schools.

Paid-sick leave, he said, is required that so workers don’t have to choose between bread-winning and quarantine due to COVID-19.

More and more people are losing employment altogether. New jobless claims for last week jumped to 965,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday, which was well above Wall Street estimates of around 800,000. The new claims increased by 181,000 from the prior week to their highest level since August as the economy struggles to recover fully from coronavirus-related lockdowns.

The U.S. economy shed 140,000 jobs in December — the first monthly decrease since April.

“Millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, have lost the dignity and respect that comes with a job and a paycheck. Millions of Americans never thought they’d be out of work,” Mr. Biden said.

He said others are “barely hanging on” as they see their hours and wages cut despite halcyon days for the top 1%.

“That’s happening today in the United States of America,” Mr. Biden said. “You won’t see this pain if your scorecard is how things are going on Wall Street.”

The Democratic sweep of the two U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia this month will give the party effective control of Congress once Sens.-elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are sworn into office. As vice president and president of the Senate, Kamala D. Harris would break any ties in what will be a 50-50 split chamber.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said they would “get right to work to turn President-elect Biden’s vision into legislation that will pass both chambers and be signed into law.”

Republicans are likely to hesitate at the price tag after Congress already authorized trillions of dollars in COVID-19-related spending last year. It’s unclear whether Senate Democrats will be able to win bipartisan support for the next relief package or whether they will press ahead using a budget tool known as reconciliation.

Incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont vowed this week to be “aggressive” with his use of the tool, which allows the majority party to bypass a potential filibuster in the Senate and pass certain tax and spending legislation with a simple majority.

Conservatives said that talk sounded like a recipe for debilitating tax increases and more government spending.

Mr. Ortiz, of the Job Creators Network, said “the comments by Bernie Sanders this week are a fresh reminder that a Democrat-controlled Senate will push a left-wing agenda, including a record tax increase.”

A trio of liberal Democratic senators pitched Mr. Biden’s team this week on legislation they pushed last year that would tie federal matching funds for states to their unemployment rates, among other provisions.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin said Thursday that they pushed their bill in a meeting this week with Cecilia Rouse, the incoming chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Mr. Wyden sounded pleased with Mr. Biden’s outline.

“Importantly, he would increase the weekly boost to jobless benefits and echoes my call for extending benefits based on economic conditions on the ground, not arbitrary end dates. I have discussed economic triggers at length with President-elect Biden’s team, and implementing them is critical to a strong recovery and protecting families from economic sabotage,” said Mr. Wyden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

But the split chamber will also give outsize influence to centrists like Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat who says he is not inclined to go along with a far-left agenda or a relief package that’s too broad.

“I will do whatever it takes to help our economy and help those people in need,” Mr. Manchin said on Fox News this week. “But let’s make sure it’s targeted. Let’s make sure it’s getting to the right place.”

Mr. Biden will outline more of his vaccine plans Friday but Mr. Trump’s coronavirus initiative, Operation Warp Speed, stole a bit of his thunder earlier in the week.

The current administration said it is releasing available doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines instead of holding booster shots in reserve — something Mr. Biden had signaled he would do. The Trump team said manufacturing had reached a sufficient level to ensure recipients’ second doses while increasing the number of people receiving initial rounds.

Mr. Trump’s team also said states should consider giving doses to anyone 65 or older and those with medical conditions that put them at high risk instead of sticking to the phase 1a group, which includes health care workers and people who live and work in nursing homes.

Dr. Gounder said the Biden team’s main task is to “get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible” instead of asking public health officials to police who might be “jumping the line” in priority.

Mr. Biden will emphasize immunization in places with high levels of vaccine hesitancy, notably Black and indigenous communities. His advisers cited efforts in cities such as Baltimore, where vaccinators and contact tracers are members of the communities they serve.

He also said people in the U.S. will be eligible for the vaccine at no cost, regardless of their immigration status.

Mr. Biden said Americans must stick to basic precautions, including mask-wearing and maintaining physical distance, while enough shots are delivered to reach widespread immunity in the U.S. The process could take until the late summer or fall.

“There will be stumbles,” Mr. Biden said, “but I will always be honest with you.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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